Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have enshrined in law a campaign preventing ethnic minority Muslim parents from "forcing" them to follow their faith.
From Nov. 1, regional legislation will take effect that adds "forcing or coercing children to participate in religious activities" to existing legislation preventing juvenile crime.
China already has a Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency Law dating back to 2012 that places criminal responsibility on the shoulders of parents, teachers and other responsible adults, should a minor become involved in crime. It makes no mention of religion.
Now, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government has amended its regional version of the law to include religious activities, which are assumed to be linked to "separatism, extremism and terrorism," in the list of criminal acts a child may be drawn into.
It also provides for children who are found taking part in religious activities to be sent to "specialized schools for correction."
"No parents or other guardians or relatives of minors shall organize, induce or force minors to participate in religious activities," the law states.
"[They] shall not propagate extremist ideology ... lure minors into wearing extremist clothing or logos," it said.
The head of the politics and law office of the Aksu municipal education department told RFA's Uyghur Service the policies extend to family life restrictions that are "the same every part of the country."
"If anybody under 18 prays, fasts, learns religion, or follows someone to pray or go underground religious places to learn, these are all deemed illegal," said the official.
"Since underage kids do not have sound judgment and a sound sense of self control, parents should be responsible for them. If such things were to happen, parents would be punished," the official added.
Guidelines for schools
China has vowed to crack down on what it calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, and regularly conducts "strike hard” campaigns including random, nighttime police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including clothing and personal appearance.
Chinese authorities in Xinjiang routinely target men wearing beards and traditional robes and women wearing veils among the Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group.
And while Beijing blames Uyghur extremists for a string of violent attacks and clashes in recent years, critics say repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Uyghur members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and government employees have long been banned from carrying out key pillars of their faith, including fasting during Ramadan.
The new law also issues guidelines for the region's schools, requiring them to "guide minors to consciously resist ethnic separatism, extremism and terrorism."
However, rejection of separatism, extremism and terrorism appeared to be closely linked to the rejection of any religious belief whatsoever.
Schools should "advocate science and the pursuit of truth, while rejecting ignorance and superstition, to resist extremist fads on campus," it said.
Children who do not comply can be referred to "specialist schools" where they will receive "correction," the law says.
The law comes after authorities across the region, particularly in the Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian), Kashgar (Kashi), and Aksu (Akesu) prefectures, began to put heavy pressure on Uyghur parents and guardians of children and teens in 2014 to sign pledges promising not to allow them to take part in any religious activity.
Families whose children study the Quran or fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan have already been hit with hefty fines, but the new law is the first to target the children themselves for punishment.
‘Policy is a provocation’
Staff in educational institutions are also being required to sign pledges to avoid any sort of religious activity or else of loss their jobs, according to the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization that represents the interests of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and abroad.
And the controls remain after children turn 18, the legal threshold for adulthood in China, with Uyghurs often still needing the permission of their employers to practice as Muslims or to join a mosque.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, said the law is aimed at eliminating religious belief among the next generation of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
"With this law, China wants to put further restrictions in place to force Uyghurs to give up their religious beliefs," Raxit said.
"If the younger generation loses its faith as a result of coercion, then the next generation of Uyghurs won't have a religion," he said.
But he said the policy is unlikely to succeed.
"The Uyghurs' belief in Islamic education is inextricably linked to their culture," Raxit said. "When [Christians] in the West go to church, of course they take their kids along, and it's the same with Uyghurs and Islam."
"This policy is a provocation that will spark a further resistance and lead to more unrest in the region," he said.
Ilshat Hasan, president of the Uyghur American Association, told RFA the measures were "oppressive and extreme" and "clearly show that China is reaching its hands even into the family."
Xinjiang-based rights activist Hu Jun said the move is part of an ever-broadening security crackdown in Xinjiang.
"This is happening everywhere now, where they are forcing people not to do this, or not to take part in that," Hu said. "They will stop at nothing."
"They're going over the top now," he said. "It won't work, and it's going to cause a backlash of ill-will against the government."
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service, and by Kurban Niyaz and Gulchehra Hoja for the Uyghur Service. Translated by by Luisetta Mudie and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.